The Life of Beth

 
A very young Beth all dressed up in Pennsylvania about 1949. She was born with blonde hair but it soon changed to brunette.

A very young Beth all dressed up in Pennsylvania about 1949. She was born with blonde hair but it soon changed to brunette.

Elizabeth Ann Williams (Beth) was born February 18, 1947 in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. She was the daughter of Laura May (Stehly) Williams and Edward Franklin Williams.  Beth’s sister, Susan, and her brother Edward were also born in Pennsylvania.  Beth’s father moved the family to Chicago as a result of his work sometime around 1954.  They lived in a suburb south of Chicago – Midlothian, Illinois.

We think this is the Midlothian, IL home where Beth's family lived in the 1950's.

We think this is the Midlothian, IL home where Beth’s family lived in the 1950’s.

It was there that Beth began studying dance, especially ballet, and progressed to the point where she was wearing toe shoes, dancing en pointe, and assisting her instructor with the other students.  She would take the train into Blue Island for her class.  She was invited to join the ballet company which was a great honor, but in 1960, shortly after the birth of her brother John, Beth’s father decided to move again and relocated to El Centro, California.

You can imagine the distress this caused Elizabeth since there was no opportunity for formal dance instruction in El Centro. As consolation, her parents sent her to a cheerleading camp in Oklahoma.   When she returned, she tried out and was chosen for the El Centro High School cheerleading squad, eventually becoming head cheerleader and then going on to be a cheerleader at Imperial Valley College.

Beth's El Centro High Yearbook picture when she was head cheerleader.

Beth’s El Centro High Yearbook picture when she was head cheerleader.

Beth was very popular in high school and junior college. She was elected Prom Queen and Homecoming Queen. She also competed in beauty pageants and was Miss Congeniality and First Runner-up in the Imperial Valley Miss America competition.  Her talent entry was modeling a clothing ensemble which she had designed and sewn.

From her early school years on, Beth’s talent in all things artistic was recognized and encouraged.  After completing her general education requirements at Imperial Valley College, she transferred to San Diego State University and earned her BA in Graphic Art. During her years at San Diego State, she worked at the San Diego Camera Exchange as a bookkeeper in order to support herself. When she graduated, she continued in that job as, by that time, she was married to her first husband and they needed her steady income. That first marriage ended in early 1973 and shortly before that time, Beth obtained a job working as a graphic artist for The Tolle Company, an advertising agency in San Diego.

In 1974,  Beth married John Michael Shirk.  At first they lived in a Mission Valley apartment building overlooking San Diego Stadium but then in 1975, Beth and Mike bought their first home at 3501 Mount Acomita in the Clairmont area of San Diego.

Sometime in 1975, Beth left her job with Tolle and took a better position with Hughes aircraft. In early 1976, Beth became pregnant with their first daughter, Jennifer, and coincidentally was laid off from her job with Hughes aircraft.  Once Jennifer was born in October of 1976, Beth decided to become a stay-at-home mother and resume her art as an  avocation.

You will be able to read more about her life as an artist in a separate section of this blog.

Beth Shirk made certain that her girls enjoyed the good life, especially when it came to parties. Here she is hosting a birthday party on the back patio in Claremont sometime around 1982.

Beth Shirk made certain that her girls enjoyed the good life, especially when it came to parties. Here she is hosting a birthday party on the back patio in Clairemont sometime around 1982.

Beth’s husband Mike (that’s me) was also in advertising, working for Chapman Michetti Advertising during the first years of their marriage. He would later go on to work for Monitor Labs, Chapman Warwick Advertising, and eventually start his own company, with his partner Tal Smith, called Michael Talbart advertising.

The years in Clairemont were very happy for Beth. She often said that she loved that home more than any that would follow. She especially enjoyed preparing the house for celebrations, such as birthday parties for Jennifer and for Karen after she was born in 1979. Unfortunately, a gang of drug dealers moved in to the home next door. They built elevated runways encircling their backyard for two Doberman’s to run around on and guard the drug dealing operation. They warned Beth not to allow her girls into the backyard because the dogs would jump over and attack. She talked to the police who said they knew these people well, that they were very dangerous, and that the family should move. The police said they could not take any action against them because they had tried in the past and they would simply be released by the courts. So the family was forced to move to Rancho Bernardo where drug dealers had not yet taken hold.

Beth and Mike's first house in Clairemont.  Three bedrooms, one bath were plenty back then.

Beth and Mike’s first house in Clairemont. Three bedrooms, one bath were plenty back then.

The family’s next home was on Sun Summit Point in the High Country West section of Rancho Bernardo. It was a beautiful home with a panoramic mountain view to the northeast. The home was newly built and all of the neighbors moved in within a few days of one another so that strong bonds were formed. Beth developed many close and long-lasting friendships with the women who lived along the street. In addition to having elaborate birthday parties for her daughters, Beth and her husband held two annual events each year that would attract several dozen guests. In the summer, they held their version of Cinco de Mayo except that it was always held on a day other than the actual Cinco de Mayo and named accordingly, such as Veinte de Mayo. In the winter, they held a Christmas sing-along where Mike played the piano, and guests sang carols using specially created songbooks.

Beth and Mike at the entrance to the High Country West club in 1985.

Beth and Mike at the entrance to the High Country West club in 1985.

Beth was a perfectionist when it came to decorating and the 12 years she lived on Sun Summit Point gave her the opportunity to exercise those traits. Up until then, money had been a major restriction and Beth and Mike did everything themselves. But Mike’s success in advertising meant Beth had a larger budget to work with and she took great pleasure in selecting the perfect set of placemats, matching napkin rings, etc. She would spend hours in morning carefully applying just the right amount of makeup and selecting  the ideal ensemble for the day. You might say that she treated herself as though she were an art project and the result was always spectacular.

In 1996, Mike was diagnosed with inclusion body myositis and the family’s life took a dramatic turn. The home on Sun Summit Point was two stories and all of the bedrooms were upstairs. Mike’s doctor told him that soon he would no longer be able to climb stairs and recommended that the family find a new place to live. In 1997, Mike and Beth left their home on Sun Summit Point and moved to a much smaller condominium in the Las Brisas section of Bernardo Heights. The condominium had a master bedroom on the ground floor but it also had a loft on the top floor which was ideal for Beth to use as her art studio. Each  morning, Beth and her treasured Maltese, Max, would climb the stairs where Beth would turn on the music, get out her  art materials and spend a happy day. in the evening she would come downstairs  and join  Mike by the fireplace for cocktails and to review the art she had produced.

 Beth  on the back patio of our Las Brisas condominium with our Maltese terrier, Max, her constant companion for 15 years.

Beth on the back patio of our Las Brisas condominium with our Maltese terrier, Max, her constant companion for 15 years.

In the year 2000, Mike’s illness forced him to retire and he also took  up  art which he produced in his own studio at the front of the house. about this time however, Beth started becoming weaker herself and was finding it more and more difficult to climb the stairs. She was also having abdominal pains and after an ultrasound revealed multiple growths in her uterus, she was scheduled for surgery. Her gynecologist was fairly certain that it was cancer and had an oncologist participate in the surgery. This turned out to be one of several false alarms or medical mistakes that would befall her over the next decade. After she had a complete hysterectomy, she got the news that in fact  the cysts were benign. By then of course it was too late to change course.

In 2004, the next medical issue arose. Beth’s vision was growing worse and she was sent to a retinologist who diagnosed her with the wet form of macular degeneration. This was a serious condition that could lead to blindness rapidly in the affected eye. The retinologist tried laser treatments which did not help and in fact may have made her vision worse. Next she was administered a series of Visudyne treatments which did stop the spreading of the degeneration, but by then she had lost all central vision in her left eye.

By the year 2005 her leg strength problem was so obvious she was seen by a local neurologist. He did the usual neurological tests and told Beth that she had ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and probably only had two or three years to live. Soon after that, Beth was seen by the ALS neurologists at UCSD medical Center and it was their opinion that she might have a different disease and should have further testing. The neurologist from Rancho Bernardo insisted that he knew better and that she would be wasting her time having more tests. However Mike also knew a good neurologist through the Muscular Dystrophy Association, Dr. Charles Jablecki, and took Beth to see him. Dr. Jablecki was able to diagnose her with myotonic muscular dystrophy, a hereditary disease that can be diagnosed through genetic blood testing. The results came back positive proving that she actually had that disease and did not have ALS.

The good news was that Beth had a much longer life expectancy with this new  diagnosis.  However it was potentially bad news for her daughters since myotonic muscular dystrophy is an autosomal dominant hereditary illness and each daughter had a 50% chance of having it.  Fortunately they were both tested and  did not have the disease.  Later we would learn that there were even more serious concerns for her health than we had been led to believe. There will be an entire section on myotonic dystrophy on this site where I will share what I have learned.   More bad news was that she could no longer climb the stairs to her studio and so Beth and Mike needed to move once again.

Beth and Mike at the front entrance of their home in Seven Oaks (Rancho Bernardo). Now that both were in wheelchairs having a single story fully accessible home was mandatory.

Beth and Mike at the front entrance of their home in Seven Oaks (Rancho Bernardo). Now that both were in wheelchairs having a single story fully accessible home was mandatory.

This time they selected a single-story home in the Seven Oaks region of Rancho Bernardo. It had a very open floor plan with wide doors and was almost completely accessible by wheelchair throughout, a very important consideration. Mike hired contractors to create sidewalks surrounding the house and reaching to the perimeters of the yard so that they could get to any portion of the landscaping by wheelchair. The home included a large family room with northern exposure and laminate floors, ideal for creating a large art studio which Beth and Mike could share. From 2006 until 2011 they continued to produce art and enjoy life in their new home. Unfortunately, their disabilities made travel impossible so that favorite pastime was no longer available.

In the fall of 2010, Beth had her annual mammogram and was told that she needed to have additional testing. They did an ultrasound and it confirmed that there was a suspicious area in her left breast. A needle biopsy a few weeks later came back with a diagnosis of ductal carcinoma in situ. According to her surgeon, this meant that she had a very small cancer which was completely confined to a duct within her breast and could be easily removed with a lumpectomy and she should not need further treatment.  We had quite an adventure getting her scheduled for surgery, as no one at Pomerado Hospital knew anything about myotonic muscular dystrophy. Anyone with that disease must have very special precautions whenever anesthesia is administered. Eventually we got that straightened out and she had the surgery and once again the doctors were wrong. It turned out she had invasive ductal carcinoma in several locations requiring a much larger surgery and also meaning that she had to have seven weeks of radiation afterward. We will never know exactly how successful the procedure was of course since she only had two more years to live.

By early 2011, Beth’s poor eyesight was making art very difficult for her. In addition, she had a lot of trouble concentrating, a problem that is known to be a symptom of myotonic muscular dystrophy.   By this time, Mike was relying on an overhead ceiling lift to lift him out of his wheelchair and into bed and as a result, he needed caregivers to come into the home in the morning and at night. In late 2011, Mike was forced to give up driving, making their life even more difficult and more dependent on outside help. Beth was also having difficulty giving herself a bath and required help with that as well. Then just before Christmas in 2011 everything changed again.

Beth and Mike were saying goodbye to friends who had come over for an afternoon party – three adult couples – and after they left Beth turned to Mike and asked, “who brought the little girl?”  There hadn’t been a little girl but it was the first of Beth’s hallucinations which were going to become much worse and much more frightening as time went by. She would see wild animals on the patio and see helicopters and officers landing in the backyard hauling away the animals. She frequently saw snakes in her bed and imagined spiders crawling all over her body. As the hallucinations grew worse, she was in more and more danger of harming herself in the middle of the night. So it became obvious that another move was required, this time to assisted living.

(to be continued)

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